"Battle Royale" disturbs and engrosses

Dec. 23, 2005, midnight | By Merlyn Deng | 15 years, 9 months ago

Japanese novel raises unsettling themes

Warning: This novel contains violent and some graphical content.

After experiencing cult-success in Japan, Koushun Takami's "Battle Royale" was translated into English for America's reading pleasure. The story revolves around the military-designed "Program," where entire classes of students are selected by a lottery to kill each other until the game's "winner" emerges.

Although "Battle Royale" sounds like a twisted version of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," the novel has its own stunning qualities. In the totalitarian "Republic of Greater East Asia," where rock music is illegal and deviating from the Republic's domineering ideology is strictly forbidden. To maintain control, the government resorts to harsh measures and invents "Programs" to deal with rebellious youth.

When students turn 15, they fervently hope that their class will not be chosen for the Program. Every student-class is subject to the lottery. Although the Program is the deepest fear of students and their families, it is an unchallenged and televised event. The novel tells the story of one of these unlucky classes.

A group of 42 students from Shiroiwa Junior High School is swept away to a deserted island after leaving school for a study trip. The students are gassed and later awaken in an empty classroom on the island with peculiar collars stubbornly attached to their necks. The room immediately dissolves into chaos, and a man enters the room, flanked by gun-toting soldiers. He introduces himself as Instructor Sakamochi and informs the students of their task. He explains the game: the students will be dispersed on the island one-by-one with a survival pack and weapon, and they are instructed to kill each other until a one person is left. To insure that students participate, he explains that the collars will detonate if students are found in forbidden zones or if no one is killed over a certain period of time.

Once the terrifying game begins, the students are forced to make serious decisions. There are those who try to escape, those who die voluntarily and those who voluntarily begin to kill. The novel's mind-blowing and action-packed events are complemented by the stories of the doomed students. In particular, the novel focuses on Shuya Nanahara, a male student with a rebellious streak. While he is the protagonist of the novel, the readers also meet mind-bogglingly unrealistic killers like Kazuo Kiriyama. He is a 15-year old genius, gang-leader and emotionless killer. Many of the characters have equally unbelievable histories, making the novel both interesting and ludicrous to believe.

The only problem with the novel is that its premise requires excessive cruelty. Despite this, the novel is a thought-provoking thriller that explores the darkest themes of survival and companionship among humans. Mere children choose between their lives and the deaths of the classmates they have known since first grade. Best friends and lovers are forced to kill each other, or die with each other. In all of this, the readers can take comfort in Nanahara's and other contestants' resilience, but even then nothing seems to go right.

It is hard to imagine that such a smoothly written novel was translated from Japanese to English. Defying the dismal expectations for a translated work, readers can easily see that Takami is a consummate storyteller and the sophistication of the novel. "Battle Royale" evokes sympathy, hate and all kinds of emotions as readers play the death-game along with Nanahara. It infuses action, tragedy, plot-twists and dark implications to form a shocking literary piece, and it is vastly different and more insightful than other novels of its genre.

Merlyn Deng. Merlyn (Mer - LEEN) has an unhealthy fixation on Silver Chips Online, the Silver Chips Manifesto, red pens and serial commas. When not editing stories and racking her brain for SCO and its readers, she may be found haunting Blair's hallways or downtown Silver Spring. … More »

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